How did the story’s form present itself to you?
The idea for this story first came when I saw something similar happen in a cafe near where I work: an older patron took a nasty fall from a stool at the counter. Two things struck me at the time: the grace with which the gentleman stood, brushed himself off, and smiled despite his obvious pain; and the kindness of two other diners who helped him—one of them even sitting with him for a time to make sure he was really all right. Thankfully—so far as I know—he was. Of course, someone falling down and being perfectly fine doesn’t generally make for great fiction, so I tweaked it. I jotted a few notes about the incident, but it never really went anywhere, until a few years later when I read David Foster Wallace’s incredible short story, “The Incarnations of Burned Children.” The narrator of that story uses very long, complex sentences to build momentum and tension. After playing around with a few early drafts of my story, I knew that I wanted it to be just one sentence to give a feeling of time tumbling forward and accelerating beyond control.
I’ve read many submissions lately about death—grim stories that tell me a lot of what I already know and feel about the subject. Your story ends in a realistic way—death cannot be avoided—but with a surprising hint at resilience, hope, dignity. I wondered about how this might connect to your job as an anesthesiologist. Are you conscious of the influence of your work in your writing? Do you ever write about your work directly?
I generally try not to make medicine the focus of my fiction, but, more often than not, it tends to work its way in there somehow. I’ve learned not to fight too hard against that. I imagine that anyone who has cared for patients and writes would agree that their experiences influence their creative work on some level. In my field in medicine, I see people at what is often a very stressful time in their lives: just before and after surgery. People are often anxious and/or in pain. Sometimes they are grappling with a new and difficult diagnosis. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the grace and dignity with which people and their loved ones persevere. I suppose, in one sense, my interest in writing is largely the same: that is, to use language to show how people persevere.
I did publish one story last year in Switchback about a patient who tells his anesthesiologist a pretty entertaining story as he is being wheeled into surgery (the story, for the record, was entirely made up!).
What do you like to read? When you open a book of fiction, what do you hope to find?
I tend to gravitate towards stories that can make me laugh (while I’m being told something that is probably quite sad). George Saunders is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Really, I love anything that feels true, and that uses language in a way I haven’t quite seen before.
Do you have a book in the works? I hope the answer is yes.
I’ve been fortunate to have a few stories published in the past year or so, so I hope one day they might turn into a collection. I’m not sure yet what their common theme or connection will end up being—hopefully not something as morose and simple as death!
I am also toying with the beginning of a novel, but it feels quite early in the process.